September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Lets Talk

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Another variation on live chat is so-called click-to-call-back. Under this model, when a customer exhibits certain behavior or lands on a certain page, the retailer sends a click-to-call-back message asking for the customer’s phone number. The customer-service rep then calls the customer. The consumer also often is offered a PC-to-phone option in which the consumer uses a PC microphone to talk with the rep.

Many retailers are turning to click-to-call-back because research shows that consumers spending more than $500 per month online prefer phone-based service to text chat by a three-to-one margin, says Ian Halpern, director of marketing for eStara Inc., which offers both text-chat and click-to-call services.

Customers also look for human contact when they run into complicated questions or credit card data entry information, Halpern says. "The vast majority of people are just more comfortable talking to someone than they are text chatting," he says.

About 85% of the 3 million people who used eStara’s service chose the phone option. And web site abandonment at companies using eStara’s Push to Talk click-to-call-back service have dropped an average of 22% to 25%, Halpern says.

Building on existing skills

Click-to-call-back also can be less expensive and time-consuming for retailers to implement than text chat, because they already have trained call center staff, says Bob Chatham, analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Retailers don’t really have to gear up for a whole new set of skills, they don’t have to teach agents to write better, they don’t have to teach them how to manage chat sessions," Chatham says. "They take advantage of existing phone skills."

The costs for offering live chat vary widely-ranging from hundreds of dollars per month to thousands of dollars-depending on merchant sales volume, service hours, and the type of service.

At 24-7 IN Touch, small merchants can get started for as little as a $350 set up fee and $200 per month, Fettes says. That covers the technology and the agents on a 24-hour, 365-day basis.

Niche Retail pays about $300 per month for three live chat agents per shift, VanEschen says. Its live chat program is built into its e-mail system.

Merchants need no special hardware to implement live chat, only a small piece of software. It often is bundled with a call center application or e-commerce platform.

Talking, talking

Another aspect of live chat that retailers should consider is that sessions often last longer than if the customer contacted customer-service via the phone, VanEschen says. "Live chat can last for 45 minutes, where you could probably answer the same type of questions in a phone conversation in a matter of 10 minutes," she says.

Retailers also need to employ customer-service agents who can field a wide variety of questions about products sold on the web site as well as the retailer’s shipping and returns policies. That’s especially true at a merchant like Niche Retail.

"We’re doing live chat on 14 different web sites that sell 14 completely different types of products-anywhere from child products to high-end watches," VanEschen says. "There are people who ask some really quick, simple procedural questions like what’s our shipping policy and things like that. And then there are people who want some help installing the car seats or who want to find the best jogging stroller for them."

Live chat also requires a large enough staff to handle the chat sessions. Many retailers have live chat agents handling multiple calls at a time, a practice that can result in lengthy delays and disgruntled customers.

Finding the value

Nevertheless, live chat can bring value to most online merchants, especially as more providers develop analytics-based chat products. But retailers must keep in mind that it is a tool, not a strategy, says Proficient Systems’ Freishtat.

"Chat is like a telephone," he says. "It can make you money, it can lose you money. The strategy has to be deciding who you want to interact with, who the best person to do the interaction is, and what the most appropriate way to do it is."

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